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The new Knicks are Mike D’Antoni’s ultimate nightmare

Twelve games into this hectic, compressed 66-game NBA season and alarm bells are ringing in New York.

Mike D’Antoni, once the NBA’s anointed modern-day Guru of Go thanks to the Steve Nash-powered ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ product he oversaw in Phoenix, is left to reflect on what must be some of the most turgid, stagnant displays of offence for which he has ever been responsible.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like Knicks fans haven’t seen 30+ three-pointers jacked up before. That’s been a staple of the Knicks offence since D’Antoni took charge.

The difference now is that the ball has stopped moving.

The Knicks rank 25th in the league in assists per game with a meagre 18.33.

D’Antoni, whose stubborn streak and resistance to change are well known, must be dying inside as he witnesses game after game of his players standing around witnessing Carmelo Anthony’s brand of hero-ball (admittedly the main reason the Knicks have eked out the majority of their six wins to date) and Toney Douglas jacking three ball after ill-advised three ball.

The fact that the Knicks have struggled isn’t surprising. D’Antoni’s offence requires a point guard – and the Knicks don’t have one. Douglas, the at-times impressive Iman Shumpert and the corpse of Mike Bibby have platooned at the point to date. Melo has run the offence at times.

None of them are able consistently move the ball and feed Amare Stoudemire and, less frequently, Tyson Chandler in the style to which they are accustomed. STAT has failed to make an impact in many games, his shooting percentage is in the gutter and he looks utterly bereft of belief and confidence.

The addition of Chandler and his imposing presence at the rim has contributed to the Knicks giving up 12 fewer points per game than last season. Unfortunately, loading the frontcourt (and amnestying floor general Chauncey Billups to do so) means the Knicks now score 12 fewer points per game too.

So the net gain is nothing. And watching the offence is now frequently as much fun as repeatedly hitting yourself in the face with a brick.

You’ve got to love the Knicks front office. Historical personnel decisions caused salary cap hell that meant D’Antoni, in terms of talent, worked with scraps for his first two seasons in charge. Now the roster has been overhauled, he’s left with better players completely unsuitable for the offence he wants to run.

A lot of the time the offence looks eerily similar to the unwatchable one-on-one ball perpetrated by new Knicks defensive coach Mike Woodson when he was head coach in Atlanta. This style will let you beat the league’s bad teams and tired squads at the end of back-to-back-to-backs. It will fail miserably against the +500 teams, especially on the road.

The departure of Billups to make room for Chandler has also left a gargantuan void in terms of leadership. With no veteran vocal presence on the floor, it seems the Knicks are ultra-aware of when they are beaten. They threw the towel in halfway through the second quarter in Oklahoma last night. They arguably gave up even earlier in Memphis last Thursday on national TV.

All of the above places enormous pressure on Baron Davis when he is finally healthy to play. If the inspired Golden State-era B Diddy shows up, he’ll be the antidote to many of the Knicks’ ills. But, given Baron’s history of up-and-down effort, it’s far from a guarantee.

Unless and in-shape and inspired Davis shows up the end of the month, this short season is going to feel like a very long one.

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Forget the sweep, the Knicks have more pressing matters to resolve

Given that he carried the Knicks for the majority of the NBA season, it’s almost apt that an injury to his back severely restricted Amare Stoudemire for the final three games of New York’s first round playoff loss to the Boston Celtics.

Would the outcome have been any different with the Knicks’ leader and best player at 100%? The brutal (if you’re a New York fan) or obvious (if you are anyone else) is a resounding “no”.

People may point to games 1 and 2 in Boston as proof the Knicks could hang with their higher-seeded opponents. But remember how badly the Celtics played in those opening games. And then remember how well the Knicks played only – thanks in the main to their mediocre late-game execution – to lose anyway.

Like an FA Cup game between a Premier League team and a side from the lower divisions of English football, New York had to play above themselves while the Celtics fell below their usual standards for the series to be close. Games 1 and 2 proved that can happen occasionally. Games 3 and 4 proved that sort of thing never lasts for the length of a series.

The manner in which Boston raised their game once they arrived in Madison Square Garden was impressive. Rajan Rondo controlled the game. Kevin Garnett took care of the intangibles. And Paul Pierce and Ray Allen shot like true assassins. All this while the Knicks took to the court with no point guard and an ailing superstar.

Which is why I can live with getting swept. More than anything this season, I wanted the Knicks to eradicate their statistical list of shame. Ten years since a winning season? Sorted. Seven years since their last playoff appearance? Never again. A decade since they last won a playoff game? That one is going to have to wait for a season. Still, two out of three ain’t bad.

Besides, the Knicks have too much to worry about in the coming weeks to sit around moping about being swept on their own floor.

First order of business is the future of Chauncey Billups. By the terms of his contract, the veteran guard’s future must be decided in the next few days. Either the Knicks pick up his $14m option or pay him just shy of $4m to take his talents elsewhere.

In Billups’ favour, he brings veteran leadership, a winning mentality and a playing relationship with Carmelo Anthony. On the flip, he is two steps slower than the player that took Detroit to a championship, took more time than anyone expected to get used to Mike D’Antoni’s methods and, most worryingly of all, is at that age when injuries take that much longer to recover from.

Could Billups’ $14m price tag be better spent on $4 to pay the point guard off and using the remaining cash to acquire a more durable point guard and a genuinely useful starting center? Maybe. Would a younger point guard be respected by Melo and Amare as much? I doubt it.

But the addition of a tough Raymond Felton-like pick and roll point guard and Marc Gasol is not financially viable – especially given Gasol’s stellar playoff play at the time his contract is due to expire.

For what the Knicks will likely be able to afford, the defensive big man they so badly require is more likely to be someone like DJ Mbenga or Jeff Foster. Serviceable but not spectacular.

All of which brings things to the second – and most important – order of business. Whatever happens with Billups and potential additions to the roster, what remains essential is that Donnie Walsh remains as the man who makes these decisions.

Only the Knicks, or more accurately owner James Dolan, with an all-world executive at the helm fulfilling his remit of returning the franchise to non-lottery, winning seasons would fail to have locked up the man who made it possible.

If Walsh is forced to walk away in the off-season, all the (relative) stability at Madison Square Garden flies out of the window. The future becomes unclear. The chaos of the recent past (which I’ve visited far too many times and doesn’t need repeating) looms again.

But what if Walsh stays? Will he be able to acquire the aforementioned point guard and center to shore up the Knicks’ porous (and that is being generous) defence? If he does, would D’Antoni be able to fit them into his offence? Would the offence-preaching coach even play these players? Would he, in what would be an unprecedented move given his career history, even try adapt his coaching principles?

As always with the Knicks, there are more questions than answers. At least in the cases of Billups and Walsh, we won’t have to wait too long to find out what’s happening.

The 2010/11 season may have ended with a sweep but that doesn’t make it a failure. The Knicks improved by 13 wins, acquired two all-stars and went some way to erasing the doom-laden Clipper-esque statistics that have dogged them for the past decade.

More importantly, they have the potential to get much, much better. Only the front office will decide if this potential is to be realised. And Donnie Walsh must be the man making those crucial decisions.

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D’Antoni must adapt to arrest Knicks decline

Six successive defeats. Nine losses in the last 10 games. A team devoid of consistent defensive effort now spluttering on offense thanks to the addition of a ball-stopping superstar and a veteran guard unable to execute a pick and roll.

Yes, the New York Knicks are primed for a potentially historic collapse, seemingly unable or unwilling to arrest their decline from a certain playoff team to a squad clueless as to where the next W – and, at times, the next basket – is coming from.

Unwatchable mess

Let’s not overreact. Even a monumental collapse isn’t likely to keep the Knicks out of the playoffs. For that to happen, Charlotte or Milwaukee would have to string together an uncharacteristic series of wins too.

But how have the Knicks gone front sixth-seeded certainties and the toughest-looking out in the first round of the post-season to a stagnant, unwatchable mess limping aimlessly into the playoffs?

The knee-jerk response is to look squarely at the trade for Carmelo Anthony. After all, the Knicks gave up 60% of their starting line-up and rookie center Timofey Mozgov to acquire the free-scoring superstar, right?

Wrong. No one in their right mind would have turned down the chance to sign Melo. How many times does an opportunity like that come along? And it’s not as if the Knicks were purveyors of consistent defence and strangers to occasional fourth quarter collapses before Anthony donned blue and orange.

Excuses

But the list of excuses for the Knicks’ increasingly woeful performances extends beyond Melo. And none of them are legitimate.

After playing at an MVP-contending level prior to the All Star break, Amare Stoudemire has cited fatigue for his recent poor form. His scoring and field goal percentage have markedly slumped over the past 10 games. D’Antoni has often been criticised for overplaying his starters but, coming down the stretch, is there elite player in the league who doesn’t feel tired? Whether you’re talking NBA or video games, there’s no excuse for being outplayed by Kwame Brown.

More alarming than Amare’s struggles has been the recent play of Chauncey Billups. Until his thigh connected with Dwight Howard’s knee, the veteran point guard looked like being the bridge that could link Melo’s low post threat with the Knicks’ up-tempo style.

The demands and complexities of D’Antoni’s offence didn’t trouble Billups before his injury. Only since his return, when he can’t buy a bucket or stay in front of even mediocre opposing guards, has adapting to a new system become a problem.

D’Antoni on the hot seat

The addition of Anthony and Billups was supposed to signal the start of the good times in New York. Instead, up to this point, the trade could ultimately cost D’Antoni his job.

Whether D’Antoni or Donnie Walsh wanted Melo or not, the public perception of the trade is that Knicks owner James Dolan got involved and made it happen. But if things don’t work out, there’s no way Dolan will accept any blame.

There’s also no guarantee Walsh will be around after the end of the season. No, the blame for the Knicks failings, should they continue, will be laid squarely at the door of the coach.

Need to adapt

Looking at things this way, it boggles the mind that D’Antoni stubbornly refuses to adapt his principles to the skills of his new superstar.

Quick shots, run ‘n’ gun and ball movement don’t suit Melo’s game. Couldn’t you get just as many open perimeter shots by running more plays through Melo and Amare closer to the hoop, forcing double teams and then kicking the ball outside?

The Knicks currently find themselves trapped in a style that no longer suits their roster. Their coach’s empty post-game platitudes (“we’ve just gotta do better”) isn’t going to arrest their decline.

Their confusion on offence is exacerbated by their lack of defence. Is there any worse sight in basketball than the lumbering Boris Diaw dancing to the hoop completely unopposed? Probably not, but watching all three of your guards getting lit up by the Bobcats’ bench players runs it close.

With Ray Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler now Knuggets, the Knicks can’t be a fast-paced team any more. Surely D’Antoni can see this. Or is he simply too stubborn to concede this point and adapt?

Shape up or prepare to ship out

History suggests the latter is the case. How long did D’Antoni hang around in Phoenix after then-GM Steve Kerr revealed he planned he bring in a defensive coach to address the Suns’ obvious failings? Has D’Antoni ever demonstrated even the slightest interest in changing his style to the skills of his players? Is he simply one-dimensional as a coach? A one-trick pony able, if he has the right players at his disposal, to produce spectacular offence that lights up the league but unable, with a roster of players with different skillsets, to mould a system better suited to their abilities?

Forget about tiredness. Forget about injuries. Forget about new players adapting to the coach’s complex system. There’s still time to figure these problems out. But the onus must be on Mike D’Antoni adapting his principles to the players at his disposal.

Melo isn’t going anywhere next season. If D’Antoni doesn’t find a way to stop the Knicks decline, James Dolan might decide the coach can’t say the same.

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Knicks remain a play-off team despite losing streak

Over last the decade, six successive losses, not to mention 12 defeats in the last 18 games, would have been enough to send Knicks fans into fits of distress.

Usually losing runs, particularly mid-season ones, have been emblematic of the dysfunction at the core of the organisation. Not only that, they’ve usually triggered the panic moves that saddled us with, for example, the corpse of Steve Francis at huge financial costs.

This season, however, things are little bit different.

Six of these 12 defeats have come against the league’s best teams (the Lakers, Heat, Magic and Spurs). None of them have been blowouts. Only two, the home losses to Sacramento and Phoenix, count as unacceptable. Only against the Kings have they failed to put forth the effort that fans expect. In this five-week period, the toughest stretch the Knicks face all season, Mike D’Antoni’s men have beat San Antonio and Chicago at home and got the better of Portland on the road.

So what’s the lesson here? For me, it’s that the recent spurt of losses has basically served to calibrate what our expectations should be.

The temptation with a rebuilt team that starts to enjoy some success is to anoint them the rising stars of the league. After all, Boston went from the basement of the Atlantic Division to the title in one year, right? But the overhaul of the Knicks roster last summer wasn’t even close to the reconstruction that happened in Boston. The Celtics ended up with three superstars and a rising star in Rajan Rondo. The Knicks added one all star in Amare Stoudemire and an relatively unheralded point guard in Ryamond Felton who has turned out to be better than anyone could have hoped.

In terms of on-court artillery, the Knicks had enough to become a play-off team, not a title contender. They had teething problems to start, a win streak that garnered national attention soon after and now, as we pass the halfway mark of the season, a string of defeats.

Over 43 games, the ups and downs of back-to-backs, road trips, injuries and developing chemistry level out and show, record-wise, where the Knicks stand. They are – and indeed have been for some time – the sixth best team in the east. They will make the play-offs. Unless the roster undergoes a Melo-dramatic change, they’ll get bounced by a superior team in the first round.

Is that enough? For now, I say it is. And not just because of where this team has languished for such a long time.

Sure, a winning season and a play-off spot will be more than welcome after the interminable failures of the Dolan/Thomas years. But that’s not the main thing here. And that’s because there’s something else Knicks fans can take from the current losing run.

It’s not losing that’s always the problem, it’s how you lose. And while D’Antoni’s reliance on playing his starters up to 40 minutes a night has arguably left his key men gassed and pining for the all star break, at no point has this team looked disinterested or like they’ve surrendered as the losses have begun to pile up.

This week’s games have been a good illustration. Falling by 15 points to Houston to start a tough road trip wasn’t ideal but, two nights later, facing the league’s best team in San Antonio, the Knicks refused to fold, coming back into the game time and again before falling in the final minutes.

One night later, a solid Knicks road performance was rendered fruitless thanks to a Kevin Durant buzzer beater. Once again, the desire to fight and the refusal to mail it in were on show. Sure, Durant’s three denied them overtime. But he’s a top three player in this league. He’s supposed to win games like that. Whether he should have had the opportunity to put the game away is another question. New York’s failure to find buckets in the final minutes is what really cost them this game.

Like I said, it’s how you lose. There’s no quit in this team. And it’s been a long time since Knicks fans could say that.
 
The toughness of Stoudemire and Felton flows through this team. No longer are the Knicks collectively willing to accept losing. Getting beat should never be about lack of effort. But there are superior teams in this league. Over the last five weeks, the Knicks have had to learn to take their lumps.

When will the winning habit return? Well, having a home game against a Washington team with zero road wins all season should certainly help.

The Knicks current slump shouldn’t blind fans to the progress this team has made. No, they’re nowhere near the finished article. Yes, the defence isn’t anywhere near good enough. But the facts are these. The Knicks remain on pace for a 44-win season despite having been through their hardest stretch of games. This team has leadership, talent and toughness to ensure it reaches this mark, something no Knick team has managed since 2001/2. Despite recent setbacks, they remain on the right track. Keep the faith.

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Return of Ronny Turiaf resuscitates Knicks

Everywhere he’s played, the reports on Ronny Turiaf have always been the same: great energy guy; defensive leader; huge locker room presence; team mate par excellence.

Hampered by a knee injury and a bench role offering him limited minutes, Turiaf had been powerless to prevent the Knicks sliding to five successive losses. Rusty on his return from injury on the road against Denver, his main contribution was getting posterised by Nene and Shelden Williams in another New York loss.

The following night, inserted into starting line-up for the first time, Turiaf shook off the rust as he provided what the Knicks had been missing: the defensive anchor necessary to launch Mike D’Antoni’s high speed offence.

The result? A road win over Sacramento and, most importantly, thanks in part to Turiaf’s rebounding, blocks and the shots his interior defence altered, the first signs of consitently fluent offence from these new look Knicks.

While Turiaf will never drop 20 points to win a game, his presence on the offensive end could prove to be just as useful as his defensive contributions. Back on his old stomping ground against Golden State, Turiaf handed out eight assists in a 125-119 Knicks win.

Regularly taking the ball from Raymond Felton at the top of the key, Turiaf initiated much of the Knicks’ offence against the Warriors – just as David Lee did last season. Singlehandedly, Turiaf’s passing ability solved one of the Knicks’ biggest problems: using Amare Stoudemire correctly.

No longer receiving the ball far away from the hoop and expected to make the offence happen from a standing start, STAT’s back to doing what he does best, getting the ball on the move and filling the hoop with powerful interior play and mid-range jumpers.

Slotting Turiaf in as starting center has conincided with the improved overall efficiency of the Knicks’ offence. Over the last three games, Felton, Stoudemire and Danilo Gallinari have found their offensive games.

Against the Warriors, Stoudemire went 10 for 12 from the field and 6 for 7 from the line. Not having to initiate the offence means he takes better shots, makes better decisions and turns the ball over (a little bit) less.

With Felton and Stat tearing into the opposition over the opening three quarters of games, Gallo has emerged as a fourth quarter closer, taking less shots overall but looking like a killer in the final stages of games, effortlessly hitting crucial threes at vital moments.

Against the Kings, Gallo only took eight shots but notched 27 points because he went to the line 17 times. While everyone was marvelling at Blake Griffin’s spectacular one-man show against the Knicks, Gallo took 11 shots and finished with 31 points (13 from 13 from the line) and Amare added 39 as the Knicks secured a comfortable road win, their third in four nights.

What can you read into this successful Knicks road trip? It’s a fair point that the teams they defeated are not the strongest teams in the Western Conference. That said, the Warriors were unbeaten at the Oracle Arena until New York showed up.

And while they undoubtedly wobbled in the games in Sacramento and Oakland, the Knicks disposed Clippers were disposed of relatively ruthlessly, something that suggested they are improving at closing games out.

Against both the Warriors and the Clippers, the Knicks faced a player playing out of his skin (Ellis and Griffin), found a performance to match them (Felton against Golden State and Stoudemire in Los Angeles) and still came away with the win.

After defeat in Denver plunged the Knicks to a desperate 3-8 record, finishing this road trip at 6-8 is a state few fans thought possible. With two winnable games against Charlotte coming up, D’Antoni’s men could be back to .500 in a week’s time. Things suddenly look a lot brighter.

With the New York speedball offence now grounded on a defensive rock called Ronny, it looks like the Knicks have found the formula to run weaker teams into submission. The question, as it always been with Mike D’Antoni’s teams, is how this turbo-boosted system will stand up against the NBA’s better squads.

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First thoughts on the new look New York Knicks

A new roster, a legitimate franchise player, a core of exciting young players and finally freedom from salary cap hell. On paper, there’s a hell of a lot to look forward to about the New York Knicks in the 2010/11 NBA season.

So, after a basketball-free summer, New York’s presence on the NBA Europe Live tour provided an ideal opportunity for a first look at the new look Knickerbockers as they took their first tentative steps in pre-season match-ups against Olimpia Milano and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

First things first, these two games were the first time the Knicks’ revamped roster had played together in front of a crowd. There was more sloppy play than cohesive play. There were a lot of turnovers. There’s no point dwelling on these things – they are to be expected. Besides, there was a lot more on show in these Knicks outings that provide clues as to what we can expect once the regular season starts.

There’s no better place to start than with Amare, the 100 million dollar man. Stoudemire was in dominant form in the Knicks 125-112 victory over Milano, pouring in 32 points in 28 minutes and getting to the line 13 times. He repeatedly got to the rim and finished after being fouled.

It was a different story against Minnesota. Against tougher opponents, Amare didn’t assert himself on the game. That said, he only played 20 minutes as Mike D’Antoni gave playing time to every member of his squad.

In both games, Stoudemire made some showy defensive plays, swiftly getting into passing lanes to make steals. He also made some telling passes from the high post to players cutting for easy hoops.

The only passive area of Amare’s game was his rebounding, something he was regularly criticised for during his career in Phoenix. How he only managed to pull down two rebounds in 20 minutes against the Timberwolves is a mystery – with his athleticism and strength he should be pulling down at least 10 boards a game.

While Amare’s presence on the roster will more than make up for the scoring lost in the departure of David Lee, the evidence from the Minnesota game suggests D’Antoni has no way of replacing D-Lee’s rebounding.

You’d think that the combined size and length of Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph, Rony Turiaf and Timofey Mozgov would be enough to fill that void. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. The Knicks were outrebounded 66-37 by the Timberwolves and, at one point in the fourth quarter, were being outscored 24-2 in second chance points.

Simply put, the likes of Knicks reject Darko Milicic and the ever-improving Kevin Love abused Amare and co on the glass. On this evidence, these four guys can’t, or won’t, replicate D-Lee’s hustle, determination and instinct for the ball – his desire to do the dirty work.

However, one thing the Knicks new core of big men can definitely do is block shots. Last season, you’d have had to wait approximately five quarters of basketball to see the Knicks block five shots. Now with Turiaf, Mozgov and Randolph on board and Danilo Gallinari chipping in, you’re likely to see five blocks in any given quarter. There’ll be no shortage of block parties at Madison Square Garden this year.

On the other side of the ball, these big guys all show good passing ability, albeit somewhat inconsistently at this stage of proceedings. One of the best Knicks plays against Minnesota came when Randolph found a cutting Bill Walker on the baseline with a sweet bounce pass. Before they fell in love with the jumper in the third quarter of the Paris loss, the Knicks had 16 assists on 22 made field goals.

The final point to make about the Knicks new core of big men relates to Mozgov. This is slightly harsh criticism based on two meaningless games but the seven-foot Russian picks up fouls so easily that it appears he will struggle to stay on the floor in regular season play. Mozgov seems unable to avoid setting moving screens but can’t get his feet to move at more important times. In Paris, he fouled out in 15 minutes.

The performances of the Knicks’ other major free agent signing Raymond Felton in Europe were curiously understated. The former Bobcat looks solid, calm and tough defensively and, even if his stats against the T’Wolves certainly didn’t reflect it, he’s so, so, so much better than Chris Duhon.

I always felt Duhon struggled to think for himself on the court. At times it seemed like if he was told to distribute he would do that exclusively and not shoot. If he was told to score, he’d do that and his passing game would disappear. He couldn’t think for himself.

Felton appears to have an instinct for what to do and when to do it. I felt he played quietly within himself in this week’s games, bedding himself in with a new system and new teammates. However, when the Knicks struggled for a basket, he sensed this and barrelled into the lane to score at the rim. He’ll need to do this much more come the regular season.

Felton had a poor game against Minnesota and the effect of his sub-par performance on the team’s overall play was shown when Toney Douglas checked in. The team’s overall energy raised about 10 notches as the young guard drained a three then forced a turnover on the very next play.

Assuming Felton beds in, Douglas may end up as the “instant offence” bench guy this year. Having said that, rumours persist that Coach D’Antoni likes the defensive intensity of a Felton/Douglas backcourt partnership. We shall see.

Another facet of Donnie Walsh’s off-season moves was to load the roster with shooting. The idea was to back up Gallo’s three-point prowess with bench guys like Roger Mason, Andy Rautins and Landry Fields.

That’s fine in theory, but the downside of this is creating an environment where everyone falls in love with the outside shot. It happened over and over again last season. Against Minnesota, it happened again. The Knicks shot 9 for 31 from beyond the arc and on occasions in the third and fourth quarters, didn’t look like they knew where the next bucket was coming from.

Taking 30 threes in a pre-season game is nothing short of lazy, especially when you have a core of players able, if not willing, to take the ball to the rack. Although Amare and Randolph got to the line relatively frequently against Milano, they were unable to repeat this against Minnesota.

No-one needs to see Randolph jacking up long twos, let alone the air ball threes he launched when he first got on the court in Milan. Or, as @Coach_D_AntNOTi noted on Twitter, “Randolph’s shot selection reminds me of Lamar Odom’s chick selection. #terrible”.

The other Knicks offender in this area is Gallinari. Time after time we hear about how he’s concentrating on faking the three and driving to the hoop. Two hours later you look at the box score and he’s taken 80% of his shots from three-point land. Take it to the hoop, Gallo!

Neither of this week’s pre-season games provides clear answers to how the Knicks will go this season. As I’ve said, it’s far too early to judge this team. But we do know the 2010/11 Knicks are a younger, more athletic team with superior depth to any MSG roster in recent times.

D’Antoni is no longer handicapped by expiring contracts masquerading as basketball players. He has the players to implement his methods. Because of this, he also has no excuses. I like this Knicks roster and I think might end up loving it when they get used to playing with each other. The new season promises much. And it’s only 19 short days away.

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Knicks take small steps forward as Lebron slips away

At least we know now. After two years of cap-clearing and mediocre performances, the Knicks failed to hit the home run in the Lebron James sweepstakes. The Chosen One will head to South Beach, tarnished reputation in hand, after the bloated hubris of his multimedia campaign on Twitter, online and on ESPN.

Don’t mistake these words for bitterness. Like every Knicks, fan I would have loved Lebron to come to Madison Square Garden. And while it sounds cruel, I couldn’t care less about his supposed betrayal of his hometown fans. Aside from some recent playoff games, the man played his heart out in Cleveland and, after seven years of service, had every right to make the decision he made.

Landing Lebron would have been akin to hitting a big fly out of the park but, remember, there’s more than one way to round the bases. Donnie Walsh’s Plan B is certainly less spectacular than his Plan A but there’s no doubt the addition of Amare Stoudemire, the trade (however painful to accept) of David Lee and the soon-to-be announced addition of a serviceable point guard in Raymond Felton make the Knicks a better team.

It’s just that Walsh has lined a single rather than launched a franchise-changing home run out of the ball park. Remember too that the Knicks’ salary cap woes are a thing of the past. Walsh now has the financial flexibility to make more moves down the line. That might mean a mid-season arrival in exchange for Eddy Curry’s expiring contract. It might even mean the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, a player truly suited to playing in NYC, in 12 months time.

The Knicks decision to fire the first free agency salvo by locking up Amare Stoudemire to a five-year $99 million contract was an impressively bold, if risky, move. Getting Amare to commit to the franchise was a move partly designed to prove to other free agents, particularly Lebron, that the Knicks were serious. After all, Lebron had reportedly lobbied Cleveland for the Phoenix power forward to join him at the trade deadline last season, a request that owner Dan Gilbert was unable to accommodate.

But Amare is far more than mere Lebron-bait. He was arguably the league’s most dominant big man in the second half of last season. Whether he flipped a switch or merely decided to up his level of play to prove he was worth a max deal is immaterial. He is an asset to any team and knows Mike D’Antoni’s system well. The downside? He rebounds sporadically and plays minimal defence. Scaremongers will also point to his injury history but his rebuilt knee and dodgy eye didn’t seem to bother him as he and Steve Nash propelled the Suns to the Western Conference finals, did they?

Most importantly, Stoudemire has the grapefruits to play in New York City. According to those in Phoenix with understanding of his personal history, the travails of the New York media are nothing compared to what the big man has experienced in his life. Give me a player willing to openly embrace a new city over a superstar willing to hold a country to ransom any day of the week.

Lebron’s decision to join the Miami Heat indirectly meant that Knicks fans were forced to say goodbye to David Lee. With no Lebron to show for his efforts, Donnie Walsh went to Plan B and signed-and-traded the Knicks’ most tradeable asset to the Golden State Warriors for Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf and Kelenna Azuibuke. There’s no doubt Lee will be missed. With the Knicks in almost perpetual turmoil, he elevated himself from a rebounding rookie role player to 20/10 All Star despite being forced to play out of position most of the time. He’s ultimately become a victim of Isiah Thomas’ cap mismanagement. While I will miss him, I really like the trade.

The key prize in the Lee trade is Randolph. He is long, athletic and there’s no limit on how effective he can be. He’s also a natural fit for the D’Antoni system. In April 2009, I was in Oakland to watch him dominate in a Warriors victory over the New Orleans Hornets. The downside? Like Stoudemire, he has a reputation for being injury prone. He also doesn’t have much of a post game. But the positives undoubtedly outweigh the negatives, especially when you add Turiaf’s shot blocking and Azuibuke’s defence.

As things stand, the Knicks will boast a massive frontcourt next season. With the Golden State three joining Amare, Danilo Gallinari, the Earl of Barron and the freshly acquired Jerome Jordan, Lee’s rebounds shouldn’t be missed and the interior defence should improve.

The final piece of Walsh’s free agency puzzle appears to be the acquisition of Charlotte Bobcats point guard Raymond Felton. Unimpressed with Charlotte’s overtures last summer, Felton, now a free agent, has found a ready suitor in the Knicks, agreeing a three-year $25 million deal expected to be finalised today. Felton occupies the middle tier of NBA point guards. He’s no Nash, Paul or Williams but he’s likely to be a more consistent player than Luke Ridnour, his competition for a spot on the Knicks roster. With Felton in place and Toney Douglas backing him up, the Knicks backcourt suddenly looks a lot tougher than it has been in recent years. The only issue may be outside shooting but Douglas showed improvement from beyond the arc when he made his late-season surge.

Felton, Douglas and Wilson Chandler will be joined in the backcourt by rookie guard Andy Rautins. The Canadian second round draft pick is considered a top long-range shooter. He made 282 threes in his last college season alone. But while Rautins undoubtedly will suit the Knicks offence, his selection ahead of New York native Lance Stephenson did raise some questions.

If there’s ever a right time to give your fan base a boost by drafting a local guy who might be a bit of a risky pick, that time is most likely to be in the middle of the second round. Yes, Stephenson, who like Stephon Marbury attended Lincoln High School in Brookyln, was described as a headcase after being anointed as a high school phenom. But, in addition to a stellar year at the University of Cincinnati, he also lost 30 pounds and was reportedly jumping out of the gym during draft workouts. He even thought the Knicks would draft him.

Why not take the chance? It was the 39th pick, Donnie, no-one would’ve complained if it didn’t work out! Can you imagine the scenes in the Garden if, as a Knick, Stephenson could have repeated his recent college form in the NBA? Now we’ll never know.

Thanks to free agency, the draft and sign-and-trades, next year’s Knicks roster has suddenly taken shape. There’s no point dwelling on Lebron or offering grades every time Walsh and D’Antoni make a move (I’m looking at you Berman!). There was only going to one winner of the James sweepstakes. It was key that the teams left disappointed still found ways to make progress.

The Knicks and Bulls have done this. To my mind, the Nets and the Clippers have not. Next season there will be one dominant team in the East and they won’t be wearing blue and orange. But the moves Walsh has made leave the Knicks as realistic contenders for the sixth, seventh or eighth seeds. And if they can achieve that, acquiring Melo, Tony Parker or Chris Paul in 2011 will be that much easier.

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